Candy the normal horse

A couple of weeks ago, the vet was out to my neighbor’s for normal maintenance and spring vaccinations. I told my neighbor to put my horses on the list; I can’t overstate the convenience of living next door to a big boarding barn.

All three of my horses needed a Coggins test and vaccinations, and I wanted to have Candy adjusted. (My vet is also an equine chiropractor.) Candy slipped and fell in my barn aisle a few weeks ago when it was wet and very slippery. She’s been extremely stiff to the left when ridden. While that’s always been her tough direction, I thought the fall might have exacerbated the stiffness and figured an adjustment wouldn’t hurt.

Unfortunately, the vet was running behind and couldn’t adjust Candy. She drew blood and vaccinated everyone, and asked me how Candy was doing. My vet hasn’t seen Candy much; for all that Candy is my problem child, she has yet to get injured or ill in a way that requires veterinary attention. I told her that Candy’s behavior hasn’t changed very much since she saw her last year- still anxious, still a little underweight, still not growing a winter coat. My vet suggested I treat her for ulcers with compounded omeprazole/ranitidine and sent me a link to the clinic’s online pharmacy.

I have not treated Candy for ulcers and she’s never been scoped for them. I’ve never been convinced her behavioral problems are ulcer-related. Her lifestyle includes plenty of turnout, lots of forage, other horses to interact with. It seems fairly low-stress, although her constant anxiety says otherwise; I don’t know what I could do to make it less stressful. Other than her anxious behavior, she exhibits no ulcer symptoms. Candy eats eagerly and well. She isn’t girthy or touchy. She doesn’t lay down any more often than the other horses do. While she doesn’t grow much of a winter coat, the hair she has is shiny and soft. And her hard-keeper tendencies aren’t unusual for a Thoroughbred. But I figured I’d bite the bullet and buy Candy the medication. It’s cheaper than the brand name stuff, and my vet said it had worked well for other clients.

Candy politely sniffing a friend without squealing or striking.

Candy’s been on the medication for a week and a half and the change in her behavior is remarkable. Little things that I assumed were part of her quirkiness have disappeared, like her tendency to rush through gates and doors. She’s been a totally different horse under saddle. Instead of vibrating with tension, she stands pretty quietly at the mounting block. She stopped the constant bit-chewing. She feels like a normal horse. Instead of feeling like a powder keg that could blow any second, she just feels like a horse. I mean, she feels like a kind of green, kind of forward, kind of ignorant horse, but without all the distracted anxiety underneath.

My vet was back at my neighbor’s on Monday and told me she could fit Candy in for an adjustment. I ducked out of work early to meet her. She asked how Candy was doing on the medication and commented that she thought Candy had already gained a little weight. She proceeded to adjust her, commenting that Candy’s hind end was stiff to the left while her front end was stiff to the right. Candy’s lumbar region was a bit sore, too. I was very happy about Candy’s behavior on Monday- she stood quietly while tied in the arena waiting for her turn with the vet. She’s usually wound up about being separated from Gina and Moe. She was good for her adjustment, too.

Candy being adjusted.

I am absolutely astonished at the change in her attitude. Part of me keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. Are the pleasant rides and good behavior flukes? Is this horse actually still a banana? I suppose only time will tell. Right now, I’m going to enjoy my happy new horse.

Lessons on Candy

Some time shortly before the new year, I was texting with a foxhunting friend. (Longtime readers will know her from the Q & A about foxhunting she did on this blog!) Our conversation centered around getting ourselves and our horses fit for a combined test in the spring; she mentioned she was going to take a dressage lesson twice a month from my neighbor, and I invited myself along.

 

Months of near-exclusive longe work served Candy well. She knows verbal cues for walk, trot, canter, and halt. Her gaits have improved in rhythm, regularity, and elevation. She seems more confident than she used to be on the longe, which is great. I have not ridden her much in the last few months, and instead chose to focus on finishing the dressage season on Moe and get Gina legged up for hunting. When I did ride her, she was mostly okay- nothing spectacular one way or the other.

My neighbor, a dressage trainer (and friend), is very familiar with Candy. She’s ridden her several times and has seen me ride her often, both at home and on trail rides. She understands that Candy is anxious and I am frustrated. You might wonder why I’ve never utilized my neighbor before. She has a thriving teaching and training business, and the two of us get along well on a personal level. I’ve been hesitant to take lessons from her because I didn’t want to cause tension in our friendship if we disagreed on something.

That hasn’t been the case so far, and I like to think that if we did disagree, we could discuss it in a rational way. Taking a semi-private lesson with my foxhunting friend has been fun and helpful!

In our first lesson, my neighbor immediately identified that Candy’s nervous energy needs a place to go. I usually like to let Candy piddle around on a loose or soft rein and don’t ask her to do much. Neighbor suggested I focus on keeping Candy positioned to the inside and moving forward, always. This was harder than it sounds- while Candy’s a hot and sensitive horse, she doesn’t always go forward. She gets jammed up and moves up and down like a carousel horse. When I really focused on riding her inside leg-to-outside-rein, she was much rounder. It was easier to ask for a more forward walk or trot once she was in the rounder frame; instead of zooming forward and impersonating a llama, she sought the contact and increased her impulsion.

I had a couple of great rides on Candy in between our first and second lessons. She was focused and pleasant, and I felt like we were making progress.

Our second lesson was kind of a disaster from the get-go. I got on, and my neighbor immediately prompted me to get moving because Candy was vibrating with energy or anxiety. (It’s hard to tell the difference.) Candy had some very nice moments of lightness and harmony, but they were interrupted by moments of pure insanity. She crow-hopped, stopped, spooked- you name it. Fortunately, I’m used to her antics by now and tried to carry on unconcerned.

Despite our unproductive second lesson, I think riding with my neighbor is overall a positive. It’s always helpful to have eyes on the ground and someone reminding me to control my rouge right hand or sit on my seat bones. I’ve enjoyed having my friend in lessons, too- we joke and laugh and I feel like I’m not totally alone in my struggles!

It’s hard to be a horse.

Sorting out Candy’s various problems is another issue altogether. I continue to be baffled by what causes her so much anxiety. I am generally kind to her, Moe and Gina appear to be pleasant to her, she receives a quality forage-based diet, and is turned out 24/7. Until I can figure out what’s bothering her (or can alleviate it through the power of legal supplementation), we’ll keep plugging along with lessons and work and trying to sort out what works and what doesn’t.

Impromptu lesson

The weather on Monday was gorgeous, so I left work a little early to go ride. I decided to ride Candy- she continues to go well on the longe, but still struggles with tension and nervousness under saddle. When I rode her last week, all we did was walk. We walked, we leg yielded, we halted, we did turns on the forehand. She eventually relaxed and was pretty pleasant. I thought another low-key ride would do her good.

I forgot how busy evenings are at my neighbor’s! Since I usually ride during the day when I’m working from home or on the weekends, I miss most of the lesson traffic. When Candy and I strolled over, the indoor arena was occupied by a gal in the middle of doing some pre-ride ground work, two little girls finishing their up/down riding lesson, and a boarder who had a friend over to ride for the second time in her life.

The indoor arena isn’t large (maybe 50′ x 100′), so I planted Candy in the middle of the arena and chatted with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. When the little girls cleared out, my neighbor told the ground work gal that she’d get on her horse first. I joked, “Do you want to get on my horse first, too?” She shrugged and said, “Sure!”

We waited for a while longer while my neighbor helped the ground work gal with her mare. When she finished, she hopped on Candy and had a really pleasant looking ride.

That might be the first time I’ve ever seen anyone ride Candy. She looked nice! After a few tense laps around the arena, she settled into a quiet, brisk walk. At the trot, she moved forward and covered the ground smoothly, staying attentive and balanced. Candy had a few moments of imbalance and nervousness, but they passed quickly and without incident.

My neighbor told me to get on and advised me focus on lateral bend. I did, and I had a whole different horse under me! Candy stayed soft, supple, and totally relaxed as long as I kept a gentle pressure with my inside leg and kept the contact soft.

That’s hard for me. Moe and Gina require a lot of leg. They don’t really need it to go forward; they need it step under themselves and bend. When I apply too much leg to Candy, she shoots forward. That unbalances her, which makes her panic and move faster. I grab at the reins, which unbalances her further and causes her to invert. I clutch at the reins more, she panics more. It’s ugly.

When I reduced the leg pressure so it was a whisper and not a shout, Candy wasn’t so frantic. She accepted it, bent around it, and used it to help balance herself. I kept the contact steady but light, and she went right on the bit and stayed there. Every so often, I reminded her to keep the inside bend by squeezing the rein in my hand. There was no flailing. No panicking. There was just a horse who seemed totally pleasant and normal.

This impromptu lesson gave me a lot to think about. It was so nice to have someone else ride my problem child horse and offer advice. (Living next to a dressage trainer is very convenient.) I know, in theory, that Candy requires a different kind of ride than my other horses. It was helpful to have someone point out what kind of difference she needs.

And Candy looked so good! I don’t think she’ll ever be a 10 mover, but I also feel confident people won’t ask me if she’s a Saddlebred cross any more.

Reflections on 2018

It’s easy for me to look back on 2018 and declare it the shittiest year ever. My eagerly anticipated foal was euthanized after being in and out of the vet clinic for a month. The vet bill incurred by Marrakesh and Gina’s care was staggering and dealt an enormous blow to my finances. Candy made little to no progress towards becoming a replacement for either of my aging senior horses. I feel like I accomplished nothing this year.

I’ve been wallowing in self-loathing for at least six months; Marrakesh’s death made me feel sad, disappointed, and completely demotivated to do anything equine-related. I had a few bursts of zealous inspiration, like when a dressage guru friend suggested a new regime for Candy over the summer. When work travel and Candy’s heel grab derailed that plan, I quickly sunk back into a demoralized and unhappy state. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right- I failed at horse breeding, I failed at horse training, I failed at budgeting.

Dwelling on all the ways I failed this year isn’t very productive, though. It actually makes me feel more disheartened and confused. I’m normally a cheerfully positive and aggressively optimistic person- just ask my friends. (They’ll tell you how annoying it is sometimes.)

Instead of continuing to revel in unhappiness, I’m going to assess what went well this year and use that to motivate myself to set goals and make a plan to achieve them in 2019.

  1. Moe had a really great year. We kicked off 2018 babysitting our friends at a cross-country outing. I’d taken jumping off Moe’s plate due to EPM and small ulcer scars on his eyes that I was afraid might be affecting his vision. And, you know, because he’s 23. I had such a great time on him that day! We also had a good year competing at First Level at local dressage shows, and ended up year-end champions for both eastern and western region schooling shows and fifth place overall.

    “WHEE!”
  2. Gina is alive and well. I’m happy Gina’s pregnancy, foaling, and recovery were totally normal. While losing Marrakesh was devastating, I’m glad nothing went wrong with Gina. She might be a grumpy old hag, but she’s my grumpy old hag- not to mention my best hunt horse!

  3. I learned new techniques and practices. I had ground work lessons with Candy, learned about reiki for horses and the Masterson Method, and discovered that there’s definitely a place for longeing in a horse’s training program.

  4. I traveled to fun places. In April, I went home to Nashville for a weekend to ferry my mom to and from eye surgery and visited with my very best friend while I was there. Two of my friends who’d never been to Land Rover Kentucky before made the journey to the Bluegrass State with me. I worked at Dressage At Devon in September and met Stacey and Klein of The Jumping Percheron there. I went to Denver to see Johnny’s family for Thanksgiving. Traveling can be kind of a pain in the ass with all of the animals, but I’m always glad to go places!

When I look at this list, it doesn’t seem like 2018 was that bad. It still feels bad- dead foals and debt don’t lead to warm fuzzy vibes-but it could be so much worse. On to 2019, right?

Longe, longe, longe

Over the summer, my dressage guru friend patiently listened to me whine about Candy. Every now and then, I throw myself a pity party about her because I’ve had her for over two years and she has made minimal progress towards being the kind of horse I would like her to be. Some of this is my fault for sure: I’ve been impatient and inconsistent at times. Some of this is Candy’s nature: she’s anxious and weird.

After watching Candy go, my friend proposed I longe her. She saw a horse who was nervous because she doesn’t know how to carry herself, nevermind carry a human. She saw a horse who was trying to do the right things, but didn’t know what they were. My friend thought that developing and adhering to a longeing program would build Candy’s balance and strength and give her more confidence. She suggested longeing three days a week for about twenty minutes at a time. She told me I ought to put a saddle, bridle, and side reins on her and stick to a walk and trot for the first couple of weeks and then introduce the canter.

The first time I attempted this, Candy was a mess. She flailed backwards at the touch of the side reins, even though they were fairly loose. She couldn’t hold a steady rhythm at the trot; minor unlevelness in the arena caused her to get wildly off balance, so she sped up to try and compensate. It was obvious she was panicky because she didn’t know what to. I kept her going at a trot and she gradually calmed down, slowed down, and trotted a couple of circles in a relatively balanced way.

I stuck to the plan all of August and into September. Candy improved every single day I longed her. She’s now very responsive to voice cues, more responsive to half-halts given on the longe, and no longer scrambles like mad if she encounters uneven or unlevel terrain. The Equisense data provides proof of Candy’s improvement, too! At the trot, her stride frequency has steadily decreased from 91.2 strides/minute on July 27 to 78.2 strides/minute and stride regularity increased from 3.9/10 to 6.0/10. That means she’s slowing down (a good thing in her case!) and keeping a steadier rhythm. Her elevation at the trot has increased from 7.5 cm to 8.8 cm, while her canter elevation has increased from 15.4 cm to 18.4 cm. Candy’s pushing from behind more, which is great!

I’m excited to put Candy back to work; she’s had about a month off between work travel and my mother’s visit. It appears she blew an abscess out while I was gone and is still a little gimpy, so her return to action is delayed for a bit. But I’m eager to start incorporating riding into our regular routine and see if all this longeing pays off under saddle!